‘Water is Life’: Paddling through North Dakota’s Standing Rock Protest


Words and photos by Kelly Daniels

As we set out on our twelve-hour journey from Kansas to North Dakota, the sky cried down upon us. Intense storms followed us through five states and into the night, with high crosswinds blowing our kayaks diagonally across the top of the car. In the morning, the rain stopped as we parked near the Cannonball River in North Dakota where thousands of people were gathered along the banks and crowded onto a bridge. Below, canoes and kayaks were sliding into the water, crossing the muddy shoreline on makeshift ramps made from wooden pallets.

We’d arrived at the Standing Rock Protest amidst prayers for the protection of the river, indigenous songs of gratitude for the water, warrior cries from young adults, smiling elders and playing children. Families representing 90 tribes of Native Americans lined the banks. We came here to support the Standing Rock Sioux people after a friend told us about this peaceful demonstration calling all canoes, kayaks and water warriors to float the river in prayerful opposition to the little publicized Dakota Access oil pipeline — a 1,172-mile, $3.7 billion project that would transport nearly 24 million gallons of crude oil per day from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota to southern Illinois.


The encampment had been growing for months. When the pipeline was first proposed, it was routed near the water supply for Bismark, North Dakota. After residents of the city objected, however, it was moved farther south to the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. “They altered the route because people were concerned about the impact on the city’s water supply,” Jan Hasselman, an Earthjustice attorney representing the tribe told High Country News. “(The government) put the risk on the tribe. That’s not right.” Concerned members of Standing Rock Sioux tribe spoke out against the new route’s potential impacts on sacred burial sites, aquifers, and the Missouri River, which provides water for millions of people, but construction began anyway. In April, a small band of activists formed a “Spirit Camp” near where the pipeline would cross under the Missouri. The camp gained momentum over the summer until an estimated 1,500 people were present. In August, over 30 activists have been arrested while attempting to block construction of the pipeline. The activists’ resistance has been effective; backhoes have stopped laying pipe as the project is being challenged in court with a ruling expected on September 9.

Hours after we arrived, we launched our kayaks with a band of close to 100 people and headed down the Cannonball River toward the Missouri, the longest river system in North America, which has already seen dozens of oil spills from aging pipelines.


As we set out, the winding river gurgled softly, mixing with the prayers being sung along the grassy, tipi-lined banks. The river is named after the Missouri tribe meaning “people with wooden canoes.” As we paddled downstream, we felt the nostalgia of the event, knowing that for thousands of years people in canoes have lived along these waters. The huge, open North Dakota skies were filled with mountains of cumulous clouds. Majestic, grass-covered mesas overlooked the riverbanks dotted by hundreds of white herons and seagulls. Except for a line of electrical towers winding across the horizon, we could have easily imagined paddling here before Lewis and Clark crossed through over two hundred years ago.

The river opened up into what looked like a large lake with round boulders piled at the bottom of the bluffs. Here, the Cannonball spilled into the Missouri River at the top of the Lake Oahe reservoir. Our group of kayaks and canoes pulled ashore beneath the power lines where the proposed pipeline is supposed to tunnel under the wide river.


One of the leaders suggested we cross to the eastern side of the river where the pipes were already piled high. There we could tether the canoes together and raise the large banner that read, “Mni Wiconi — Water is Life.” Waves and current raged between us and the far bank, which was over a mile away. During the hour it took us to cross the river, the wind picked up, making whitecaps on the water as our ears were filled with the humming of the gigantic power lines. People in the canoes raised their paddles as planes and helicopters flew low above us, checking out our group. Trucks and guards arrived on the shore, lining up to protect the pipes as our canoes and kayaks full of peaceful women, men, elders and children approached. We struggled upstream against the fast current and fierce wind, trying to raise the banner. When we finally settled on to the riverbank, prayers and songs about the sacredness of the water and gratitude were sung in the Lakota language. We raised the banner there among the wildflowers and native grasses that grew along the still pristine shore.

As we stood near the pipeline site with our diverse group of paddlers, the power of this historic movement was palpable. “The last time the seven bands of the Lakota-Dakota-Nakota nation stood together was at the Battle of the Greasy Grass (Battle of the Little Big Horn), June 25, 1876,” said Jon Eagle Sr., Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Members of other tribes have traveled from as far away as New York and Canada to join to protest.


On our way back across the river, we repeatedly lost track of the channel and many of the canoes got stuck in the shallows. We struggled to pull and walk our boats through the mud and water. The sun was hanging low on the horizon when we finally hauled the boats up the muddy banks of the Spirit Camp, completely exhausted. We could hear the singing, smell the cooking fires and feel a peaceful presence come over us as we watched the families gather among the tipis. We were welcomed to a dinner of buffalo stew, roasted potatoes and corn on the cob cooked in huge troughs over open fires. Children played in the grasses. Elders spoke inspirational messages to circles of people. Youth on horses roamed the camp. As we told our story around one of the sacred fires, we talked about the somewhat painful and tiring experience we had had that day. A young woman commented about how perhaps we were actually sharing the pain of the river.

That night as we fell asleep, we felt as if we had traveled back in time. We dozed off to the sounds of drums and singing, thankful for the river, praying for its protection.

For more information on how you can help:

Physical Donations can be sent to:
Sacred Stone Camp
PO Box 1011
Fort Yates, ND 58538

Sacred Stone Camp fund:

Legal fund:

Supply list link:

Join us September 4 at the Missouri River Solidarity With Standing Rock in Kansas City https://www.facebook.com/events/862402957226551/

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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